This Is How Long It's Safe to Drink Milk Past Its Expiration Date

Here's the rule of thumb to memorize, plus a helpful tip from the USDA.

When you reach for a carton of milk at the grocery store, you probably check the "sell by" or "best by" date—those handy labels that help you determine how fresh the product may be. But sometimes those labels can become confusing, because there's often no explicitly stated expiration date to tell you when your product should be tossed. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), these dates tell you when a product will likely pass peak quality and flavor, but they don't offer guidance on safety, as many mistakenly believe.

So how do you know if your milk is safe to drink? It can depend on a few factors including whether it's been pasteurized, the particulars of its storage, and more—so let's get right down to it. Read on to find out exactly how long you can drink your milk past the date on the carton, and for more essential news from the USDA, This Popular Sausage Should Be Thrown Away Immediately, USDA Says.

Most milk can last up to seven days after the listed expiration date—but not always.

man buying milk in supermarket

While there are no hard and fast rules on when to toss a dairy product, researchers have found that unopened milk can typically last for between five and seven days after the listed expiration date. Opened milk, on the other hand, may last just two to three days after the "best if used by" date.

That said, the USDA explains that milk that has gone bad will almost certainly make itself known. They suggest that most people will be able to spot a questionable carton using their basic senses. "Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten," the agriculture authority explains. They say the product should still be safe "until spoilage is evident," even "if the date passes during home storage." And for more helpful tips from the USDA, If You Have These Seasonings at Home, Get Rid of Them, USDA Says.

Expired products waste your money.

closeup of person looking at bottle of milk with open fridge door

According to a new survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by One Poll on behalf of Noluma, milk is the food item most likely to expire in your fridge. While one in five respondents said they would still consume an item which has passed its use-by date, four out of five say they'd toss a product that's labeled as past its prime.

They also found that the cost of these expired products can really add up over time. "The average American believes they spend $82 each week on food and drink, but nearly $16 of this will end up being thrown away after going out of date," the survey authors said. In other words, nearly 20 percent of your money spent on groceries will likely go down the drain due to product expiration. And for more smarter living tips delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

You can extend your milk's shelf life.

woman in pink shirt with dark curly hair opening double door fridge

According to Healthline, there are simple steps you can take to help your dairy products last longer past the listed expiration date. First and most effectively, the health site reports that you can reduce your refrigerator's temperature from 43°F (6°C) to 39°F (4°C) to lengthen food's shelf life by nine days.

Additionally, you should always put your milk away immediately after use, store milk on an interior shelf rather than the fridge door, and make sure your milk is tightly sealed before returning it to the fridge.

You can also opt for shelf stable milk.

jar pouring glass of milk into cup

When milk is pasteurized, it undergoes a process of heating that eliminates most E. coli, listeria, and salmonella—but the tiny traces of bacteria that survive the process can grow over time, making milk eventually go bad. That's why, if you don't use milk often in your home, you may want to opt for shelf stable milk. Also known as unrefrigerated or aseptic milk, this product is treated with a process that's similar to pasteurization, but uses higher heat, making bacteria unable to grow even when stored at room temperature until use.

Unopened, shelf stable milk can typically last between two and four weeks past the "best by" date if stored in a cool, dry space, reports Healthline. If you store it in the fridge, it could last as long as two months. Once opened, it may last seven to 10 days before showing signs of spoilage—at which point, you can go ahead and toss it. And for more products that can put you at risk for this dangerous bacteria,  The FDA Just Issued a Salmonella Warning for This Popular Grocery Item.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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